Prelude to the Asbestos Strike: The Provincial Labour Code (Bill 5)
by Antonio Barrette (Provincial Minister of Labour)
From 1944 to 1948 Prime Minister Duplessis dominated the Assembly. He was a shrewd politician and a superb parliamentarian. There was no doubt that he would be re-elected.
I played an extremely active role in the 1948 election campaign and spoke in 23 ridings.
We beheaded the Liberal Party. It returned only eight MPPs. This was a much more humiliating defeat than ours in 1939.
Quebec's leading Liberals were gone. Ernest Lapointe died in 1941. P. J. A. Cardin resigned in 1942 over conscription and died in 1946. Alexandre Taschereau, still hale and hearty despite his 80 years, had retired from politics completely (1). His successor, Adélard Godbout, had just been beaten in his own riding. Other prominent Liberals later left politics and received judgeships: Fernand Choquette, Valmore Bienvenue, Jacques Dumoulin, Léon Casgrain. T. D. Bouchard had become a Senator.
Our victory was perhaps too great. So much power should never be placed in the hands of one man, no matter how fair, how well-intentioned.
In 1947, when the movement in favour of a new national labour code was gathering strength Duplessis announced that the whole field of provincial labour legislation would be re-considered with a view to improving the province's laws on the subject, which were already among the best at the time.
On November 26, 1948, the Prime Minister made public his decision to table a draft labour code in parliament. On his instructions Bill No. 5 was accordingly drawn up as the basis for the new code.
"This bill", he told me, "will bring together labour and management's main recommendations to the government during the last few years. They will then be asked to give us their comments in open session".
The task of collecting the material and drafting the bill would be entrusted to legal specialists in labour legislation, he explained to me, and the bill would be tabled in the Assembly before being distributed for study and comments.
I had no valid reason for opposing this procedure. Unfortunately, the bill could not be submitted to the Public Bills Committee owing to CTCC opposition. I therefore had to oppose its being given second reading. Duplessis should have prepared the terrain by informing the public that a draft only was being prepared for study by the Private Bills Committee with labour and management taking part in the discussions. His statements had not been clear enough before labour and management had seen it. Their reaction was sharp. Duplessis was accused of wanting to force the bill through as it was. He had no such intention of course as was amply proved later when he authorized me to withdraw it.
His tactics might have worked if he had given labour and management firm assurances of being able to comment pertinently. But he had not done so. His bill was hastily drafted and given first reading with hardly any advance warning and with no further details than his own statement that it would be discussed by the Private Bills Committee in open session. He should have specified that even as a bill it was only a draft subject to Committee scrutiny.
I wanted to start explaining our position immediately, but the Prime Minister preferred to wait. Everything would turn out alright, he said, when the government's intention of giving public hearing to labour and management became known. Events, however, moved faster than the proposed meetings.
A few days after the bill was tabled, the CTCC held a convention in Quebec City to study and comment on it. The workers rejected not merely a clause or a chapter here and there but the entire bill. No discussions were possible.
The Confederation's chaplain, Rev. Henri Pichette, had attended this meeting on January 29 and had been rather startled by the tone of the speeches. He telephoned me from Quebec City at the end of the day and despite the bitter cold came by train to see me at my home in Joliette that night.
He was visibly upset and very much concerned, not only about what he had heard at the meeting but especially about what he had said there himself. He had actively encouraged the bill's opponents in terms which "if reported to the hierarchy would", he feared, "certainly result in a severe reprimand". I reassured him as best I could, but this was not really necessary because shortly thereafter Father Pichette started talking with great aplomb to the workers at Asbestos and Louiseville, to the employees of Dupuis Frères in Montreal, etc., publicly and strongly approving the workers on strike and telling them the Church was fully behind them. His speeches were given wide publicity.
Opposition to Bill 5 continued to mount; indeed to snowball. Not only did organized labour protest, but so too did certain managerial sectors intent on protecting themselves against future blows.
The government said nothing; did nothing; and kept its intentions to itself.
I deplored this behaviour at the time. I regret it still. Duplessis had no rivals as a debater. Yet for no apparent reason he would at times stubbornly refuse to explain his decisions, even when a simple explanation would have spared him criticism or improved his public posture.
Soon all newspapers in the province had entered the fray. To push claims and demands is easy. In the field of labour relations, it is much more difficult for the press, labour, management, and especially for the Minister of Labour himself to explain matters. Destouches' well-known verse comes to mind: La critique est aisée, et l’art est difficile.
Many people were opposing the bill without knowing much about it and there was a good deal of talk about a general strike. Politicians of all shades and colours who were opposed to the government also took up the cudgels. They were joined by those who feared too strong a government.
A week passed. The following Tuesday, when the Assembly rose at six o'clock I accompanied the Prime Minister to his office, where we had a brief but serious talk.
"Mr. Duplessis", I said, "this bill has to go. It must be withdrawn this week. It has features which are completely out of place in such legislation and it also has omissions which are equally regrettable. It is too late to amend it. If I had had a hand in drafting it I think I could have avoided most of the trouble. In the circumstances there is only one way out: show our good faith by withdrawing it. In its present form, I cannot endorse it".
We were both on edge, but our conversation had been friendly. It ended abruptly. The Prime Minister agreed with me. "I believe you are right", he said, "but first we must have the approval of the party caucus and abide by its decision". This sudden move was typical of him and showed his skill as a tactician.
It resembled Mackenzie King's behaviour vis-à-vis his Quebec ministers on the conscription issue. He had promised them never to pass such a law, but later was relieved of his pledge by a country-wide plebiscite.
King had made his pledge to Quebec, its ministers, and people; but he appealed to the whole country on the assumption that the other provinces would vote contrary to Quebec and that is exactly what happened.
Duplessis likewise wanted to save his face. A bill had been drafted on his instructions. He had asked me to table it in parliament, but he did not want it withdrawn without first having consulted the party caucus because, odd contradiction, he said a bill was concerned. The caucus would free him from a problem which he himself had created. Like Mackenzie King, whom he imitated at times, he used good methods and bad as well on occasion. Those who know his political skill will easily recognize him in this manoeuvre. MPPs and ministers alike had been rather taken aback by the public's reaction to the bill. All were apprehensive about the widespread protest movement which it had aroused against the government; and all, feeling that something was afoot, attended the caucus.
I shall relate here only those caucus developments which concerned the bill's withdrawal. As elsewhere in this book, I shall give names and details only if my account is denied.
That night Duplessis was in great form. He indulged in no preliminaries as he usually did on such occasions. No other subject was discussed before coming to the point of the caucus. He stated at the very beginning that he wanted to give each person present an opportunity to express his views about the bill. At the outset he asked me if I had anything to say. I was seated right next to him on his left. I replied that I preferred to wait a while before making my views known.
At about ten o'clock developments were such that the Prime Minister was free to maintain or withdraw the bill if he wanted to. At that point he asked me to speak but paved the way for me by observing that: "On balance I wonder if the bill might not best be withdrawn. We wanted to render a service to labour and management, but they do not seem to want to discuss it with us. Since they doubt our word they will have to put up with what they have now. However, before reaching a decision I think we should hear the Minister of Labour, who must surely have something to say on the subject".
Thus did he state that the bill was to be withdrawn, but with his usual finesse he asked me to speak.
I addressed the gathering for only a few minutes in terms more or less as follows: "Mr. Duplessis. No one can doubt your courage or goodwill. Your decision has pleased me a good deal. Considering your strength in parliament, your decision to withdraw the bill against a background of public threats and clamour which you could easily ignore is an act of great sincerity and public spirit".
A few minutes later the caucus adjourned. It had been a hard day. That night I had remained silent for two hours listening to the views of the various speakers. I was the only one who was aware of the Prime Minister's true intentions. He wanted to induce his ministers, MPPs and Legislative Councillors to approve the bill with him and then suggest its withdrawal through my intermediary. He wanted to show me that he was the leader of the party and that it depended upon him alone to have the bill approved, withdrawn, or-amended if he so desired. He was not an easy man to get along with at times.
By using such tactics, Duplessis made sure that nobody could accuse him of withdrawing the bill under pressure from me. On the contrary, had not the caucus itself freely decided its fate. I could not help admiring his skill. I had merely been his interpreter.
I returned to my hotel room and almost immediately the Prime Minister's butler was at my door. He had brought me a very fine painting. (2) This was Duplessis' way of showing his appreciation and of making me forget the vicissitudes I had experienced in connection with his bill.
The next morning he asked me to draft the following press release on the subject. He approved the text immediately. On Thursday afternoon I read it in the Assembly when announcing the bill's withdrawal and then proceeded to forget about the whole affair.
We could of course have codified all existing provincial labour legislation. We could have included all such laws in one book without amendment and with numbered chapters instead of separate names and titles. We would have had a code of hundreds of articles and clauses.
For more than ten years this ephemeral incident was used against Duplessis. At the beginning of October 1962, an otherwise serious person told me that because of Bill 5 I had absented myself at the time for an entire session! He even gave me the name of the person (a senior member of Laval University) who had so informed him. When I told him that the bill had been tabled in 1949 and that the only session I had ever missed was that of 1959, for reasons of health mainly, he was greatly surprised.
The public outcry had lasted only a few days, but all the government's opponents had come together under pretext of supporting the unions. Many were doubtless sincere, but more were merely trying to embarrass us.
From 1944 to 1948 some opposition forces had remained quiescent. They were reassured by Duplessis' nationalism and his calm statesmanlike demeanour in the Assembly. It was however an armed truce.
Hitherto these disparate groups had lacked a catalyst. Bill 5 was the reagent which brought them together. As a result, Bill 5 had become our Achilles' heel and the government's influence in labour matters would never again be as strong as before.
It must be admitted that the situation had deteriorated rapidly. It was held that the government had retreated under union pressure. It was a mistake to have let things come to such a pass. This was more than enough to provide ammunition for all opposition forces in the province. They backed the unions when the asbestos strike erupted and it became clear that the struggle against Bill 5 had only been a prelude.
(1) He died on July 8, 1962.
(2) was to acquire a good dozen such paintings from him during the course of my career!
Source: Antonio Barrette, Memoirs, Montréal, Librairie Beauchemin, 1966, 384p., pp. 98-105. Despite attempts to do so, it was not possible to obtain permission to reproduce this document. The holder of the copyright, Librairie Beauchemin, has vanished and it is not clear who, if anybody, now owns the rights to this text. If such a person exists, I would appreciate that they contact Claude Bélanger (C.BELANGER@marianopolis.edu) to regularize this situation. The editor affirms that the publication of the document reproduced here is done in good faith, without commercial purposes, and that such publication in no way denies the proprietary rights of the holder(s) of the copyrights of La Librairie Beauchemin.
© 2001 For the web edition, Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College